Bizet's Carmen — whose tale of romantic obsession is one of the few operas where listeners see much of themselves in the characters — is necessary to any major opera company, though what allows audiences to keep entering its dark looking glass has no dependable formula.
Having gone from traditional productions to disastrous updating, Opera Philadelphia amended much of its checkered Carmen history with a new, visually provocative, well-cast production that found fresh interpretive middle ground Friday at the Academy of Music.
The setting felt like 1950s Franco-era Spain with its stark contrast of good and bad girls (one in white gloves, another in blood red), plus a strong military presence in a society where loopholes are possible at every turn. Gypsy smugglers, flawed heroes, and corrupt officers were all at home in the production's world of sleazy nightclubs, cigarette ads on crumbling billboards, and bullfight stadiums in seedy surroundings — often rendered with smart diagonal geometry that drew in your eyes.
Neither director Paul Curran nor designer Gary McCann let the production get ugly: This is a world where some semblance of veneer was maintained, even if its bright Latin colors had been left out in the rain a bit too often.
Carmen sought a life of both freedom and stability that this world couldn't give her — in contrast to the good girl Micaela, who was just as passionate in her own way, even if she resembled a 1950s Sunday school teacher. The hapless corporal Don Jose was the lost soul in the middle, becoming unhinged amid sexual conflict that he was too naive to understand.
All of this was there in the production — with traditional character relationships magnified by an animated, ever-so-slightly stylized manner of staging. The interior miracle of Carmen was apparent: The famous effervescent melodies were made to reveal underlying tension and danger just about everywhere.
The production, however, wasn't fully realized. It seemed to have been rehearsed from the end and then moving forward with a meticulously wrought Act IV murder scene — among the most effective I've ever seen — with lighting that made Don Jose first appear like a specter who then bars Carmen's escape routes one by one.
In contrast, Act I crowd scenes looked pedestrian and even thrown together. Well, the music is so inviting that it probably doesn't need any visual help, though the title character's casual entrance was a definite minus.
In between, Act III was an eloquently stark warehouse where smugglers meet, initially suggesting the barrenness of their lives that is eventually filled with stolen goods. This co-production with Seattle Opera and Irish National Opera deserved longevity.
Though ostensibly polished and with good French enunciation, performances were somewhat undercooked — a quality that contributed dramatic truth to Evan LeRoy Johnson's early scenes as Don Jose. Recently heard in the Curtis Opera production of Eugene Onegin, he had the kind of effortless vocal production rarely heard in well-projected tenor voice, which constantly reminded you, during his character's descent into mania, that Don Jose once passed for normal.
Though Johnson promises to have a long, fruitful relationship with his role, Adrian Timpau brought far too much vocal weight to the bullfighter Escamillo. Kirsten MacKinnon refused to hide out in Micaela's demure qualities: When she forced her voice a bit, she established herself as a strong foil for Carmen.
And Carmen herself? Daniela Mack had many qualities for a fine Carmen, including physical allure and adept theatricality, though the music hadn't yet settled into her rich mezzo-soprano voice. What should've been soaring, sustained notes were blunted by excessive vibrato.
Conductor Yves Abel similarly left a mixed impression. French style was apparent, and the orchestra played beautifully with some remarkably lush moments, but tempos were so often moderate in ways that lacked electricity in key scenes. When you start thinking that Carmen's famous Habanera is a verse too long, something significant is missing.